A Call For Intimacy
The last couple of years I have been teaching art classes to war veterans. Most of my students are male, but last spring I was asked to work with a group of female veterans in a rehab halfway house about an hour from my home. Driving is not my favorite pastime, especially in areas I am not familiar with — I am directionally challenged— so I worried more about the drive than about my first meeting with these women. These were some pretty rough, rundown quarters for me to get lost in, so when I saw the house I drew a sigh of relief.
The feeling was short lived. After having rung the doorbell a stern, suspicious face appeared in the doorway.
“Hi. I am Kerstin and I am here to teach art this afternoon."
"Oh, really? Is that so? " The middle aged, corpulent woman turned around and yelled with a voice that could awaken the dead: ART CLASS!! NOW!! UPSTAIRS!
One of the female veterans, a blond woman with a sullen face, was told to lead me upstairs to the third floor and show me around so I could set up. It was obvious that both of these women were stressed out and that dealing with me was not even on the bottom of their wish list.
The room was dark and I had to move all kinds of furniture around to create a space for us. Eventually about nine women arrived. They sat there with arms crossed over their chests, black and brown and white chins defiantly in the air and eyes that said, "What the hell are you here for?' I felt as if I just had stumbled into an enemy camp. I don't sweat much normally and never wear deodorant, but suddenly my armpits were damp and I could smell my own fear. I prayed that these women could not and pressed my arms to my sides. What had I been thinking? What had I expected, really? These women looked exceptionally tough but why would that surprise me? No shrinking violets volunteer to go to war.
"My name is Kerstin," I started. I was born and raised in Sweden and have lived here in the US about half my life. I became a US citizen 4 years ago.” Now they all looked me up and down to check out “the Swede.” My stomach made a noise. I hoped nobody but I had noticed.
"I grew up on a farm where I was allergic to most things like hay and animals and wildflowers and I suffered from asthma, so I was not allowed to run and climb or jump. Art became my activity of choice and I noticed that when I got lost in the creative process I forgot about my troubles and my physical symptoms.
"I am on an inhaler," the woman closest to me offered.
"So, then you know how uncomfortable that can be," I said. "It is scary when you don't feel like you can breathe, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it sucks."
"I am fortunate that I don't have asthma any more so…”
How did you get rid of it?"
"I grew out of it. That is why I am almost six feet tall!” A couple of the women chuckled and exchanged glances. I was not sure if this was a good or bad thing. They were pretty tall themselves.
"I have done a lot of different work in my life, but making pictures has always been the red thread through my life, my safe haven. Doing art can be very healing and therapeutic for all kinds of problems and today I thought we would…."
"What is Sweden like? I hear they have good social programs there."
"Well, yes, we have socialized medicine and schools are usually free and…"
“What about the veteran's homes there? Are they any good?” A young black woman´s eyes met mine with something that resembled genuine curiousity."
I don't think there are any of those. Sweden has not been in a war for hundreds of years."
"What! You're messing with me?!!!"
"No, Sweden is a neutral country."
"I want to move to Sweden,” the woman called out and everyone laughed. "I am going!"
There was some reshuffling in the chairs and a few women leaned forward towards me with a slight light of curiosity in their eyes.
"So then, if Sweden is so wonderful why did you come here?”
"I started out as an exchange student at a small private university in Oklahoma.”
"Oklahoma!! Far out!"
"Yeah, I had a Swedish/ Oklahoman accent for a while.” I imitated how I used to talk my first year in the US. More laughter. My shoulders dropped down a few centimeters away from my ears and I could hear my voice getting steadier.
"Yes, I was taking art classes there at Phillips University in Enid. And speaking of art, let me show you what I had in mind for us to do today. I brought some really cool materials for us to work with.” The rest of the time we painted, bantered, laughed and came up with creative nicknames for each person. I told them I needed that in order to remember their names better. So we had "Sally, the soul singer," "Shenika, the sex goddess," "Maria, the marvelous mime," "Woodworker Wilma" and all the others. I was simply "the Swede."
For about half an hour everyone relaxed and got lost in their projects. I walked around and complimented them on their creations and offered helpful suggestions when invited. Then Sally looked up at me. "You know, all of us here have been through a lot of sh-t and seen a lot of hellish stuff. And most of us are on medication for anxiety and depression. I just want you to know that so that you don't go home thinking we don't like you. Because, actually, we do. You are cool.”
"You are coming back next week, aren't you?" Shenika asked.
I got all choked up. "Yes, sure I will be back.”
When it was time to clean up, everyone helped to move things back the way they were. We were a team. I wondered how many times in my life before had I missed that lesson of how conflict is often a call for intimacy. In finding the courage to live from a place of my vulnerability, I built trust in our common humanity.
Kerstin Zettmar, a Swedish/American citizen, lives and works as an artist, yoga teacher and holistic bodywork practitioner in Newport, RI. She can be contacted at Kerstin@Zettmar.com or 401-848-0288. Please visit www.zettmar.com.